Many fans might perceive the second semifinal this year as the “semifinal of death” but you wouldn’t know that by watching the first half–though there a couple of oddsmakers favorites in this bracket the others are less heralded.
ARMENIA: “Walking Out” – Srbuk. This sassy empowerment entry got many fans a-tizzy as it instantly garnered very positive buzz, with a possible play for the Top 10 in the final. The video featured Srbuk with a multitude of backup dancers whom she seems to be battling against and fans were expecting to see a few of them at least onstage. But when the staging is revealed, it turns out it will be Srbuk all alone and many felt it’s a misfire that might jeopardize this entry’s status as a shoo-in. I’m still optimistic about this entry’s prospects of advancing to the final but indeed, the staging could potentially cost them.
IRELAND: “22” – Sarah McTernan. On its own this retro 1980s synth-pop ditty is a pleasant listen but is not in serious contention to advance to the final, and that sentiment is reinforced as the producers slated this to perform second. So far, the rehearsals seem to show that Sarah’s vocals are not quite pitch perfect but we’re hopeful that this would be remedied by the time they have to perform for the juries. Anyway, Ireland is not giving up without a fight as the pop-art staging is actually terrific.
MOLDOVA: “Stay” – Ana Odobescu. If this were 2007, it would not only qualify to the final but place in the Top Ten, as it’s of the same caliber as Natalia Barbu‘s “Fight“. But what worked in 2007 would sound dated a decade later and that is the case with this. One thing is certain–Ana'[s vocals are unimpeachable, as it’s consistently ferocious. Her voice reminds me of another powerhouse vocalist: Taylor Dayne. It’s such a shame Ana is saddled with a mediocre song. So what to do? They seemed to be inspired by a scenario back in 2011 as Ukraine’s Mika Newton had the same dilemma with her song “Angel“, and what they did was hire a sand artist who would provide a stage backdrop for her performance via screen projection. The gambit worked as this placed fourth in the final. So, the same artist was hired for this performance. But the fandom threw shade on this, and I have a feeling this time the gambit would not work.
SWITZERLAND: “She Got Me” – Luca Hänni. Sure Wiwibloggs’ Deban Aderemi may dismiss this as “Despa–Fuego“, but it’s undeniable this entry has all the elements that will finally deliver this country out of a five-year drought, as it’s a slick production and it’s very modern, radio-friendly and catchy. On top of that, Luca is renowned for his dance skills, which makes him poised to become the male equivalent of Eleni Foureira. The staging indeed follows the “Fuego” template–he ditched the suit and fedora for a more casual stage get-up and he’s accompanied by four backup singers and dancers clad in red. And like Eleni, his vocals may not be perfect but he stays on key most of the time, which is enough for a high energy, dance-oriented performance like this one.
I would be amiss to note that for many observers who were not aware of Luca, the first thing they notice is that he resembles Nick Jonas. Little did we realize he and Luca also share the same evolution from boyis cutie to chiseled, stubbled hunk. Observe their transformations below.
LATVIA: “That Night” – Carousel. There are some fans who appreciate this very subdued, quiet number, especially since the lead singer Sabīne Žuga is mostly pitch perfect. That worked with Laura Rizzottolast year, but the difference is that Laura spiced up her presentation (with a subtle change in wardrobe even if her presentation was essentially similar to her national final peformance) while this act did nothing to add more interest in their presentation and what was an initimate presentation on a smaller national final stage was drowned out by the vaster Tel Aviv stage.
ROMANIA: “On a Sunday” – Ester Peony. Though I’m still stewing over the fact that neither Bella Santiago nor Laura Bretan was chosen to represent this country, I have to give much respect to this entry as it actually grew on me that it became one of my favorite songs in this year’s batch. Its mix of a laid-back jazzy groove (think Hungary’s “Unsubstantial Blues” by Magdi Ruzsa back in 2007) with ominous minor key instrumentation help create an unsettling vibe befitting this tale of heartache. There is an appropriate gothic vibe in the stage presentation, especially with the male backup dancers acting like manservants subservient to Ester’s bidding. I can see this bringing Romania back to the finals.
DENMARK: “Love is Forever” – Leonora. Leonora employed an old Eurovision trick that was prevalent back in the 1960s to 1990s–peppering verses sung in other languages than the main language. In this case, the main language is English and Leonora sang verses in French, German and Danish. Will that old-fashioned gambit work in this day and age? I’m not sure–the song is just a tad twee to my ears, but I have to hand it that Leonora is a good singer and stays on pitch throughout at least.
SWEDEN: “Too Late for Love” – John Lundvik. In many ways, this could be viewed as the successor to Cesar Sampson‘s mantle, and like Cesar he’s likely going to be a huge jury darling. In my opinion, this is a big improvement to Cesar Sampson as 1) I always felt uncomfortable when I hear Cesar sing the title line, as I always get an image of him suddenly dressed up in a ballgown-I don’t get that vibe with John and this song as this is such an upbeat bop; and 2) unlike Cesar being the only visible onstage performer, John shares the spotlight with his backing vocalists (“The Mamas” as he dubbed them) and their presence indeed enhance the presentation. Yes, this entry is a shoo-in for the finals and could sustain a Top Ten finish for this country.
I also have to note that the pleasure I derive from John’s entry is similar to the pleasure I get watching the climactic “Holy Holy” number from Sister Act 2. Yes, this movie is not really well-regarded, but it remains one of my biggest guilty pleasures.
AUSTRIA: “Limits” – PÆNDA. The musical scout Eberard Forcher noted that this entry could be considered divisive, but to my ears, there is nothing divisive about this mellow, delicate ballad. Divisive is what you can describe Tulia, Conan Osiris, or Hatari but not this artist. It’s a very pleasant listen–if there is anything to debate about this entry it would be its prospects of advancing to the final. It’s not a sure thing that this would advance even if this country has a track record for being a big jury darling. Though there are positive notices about her stage presentation, the fact that the song tend to be deemed as low impact may hamper its chances to advance, especially with a group of heavy hitters like what could be found in the second half ot he semifinal.
The second half of the second semifinal is very eclectic this year. It is so eclectic, it can be even described as “quirky”. Some of the biggest risk takers of the entire contest could be found here–let’s see if the risks would pay off.
BELGIUM: “Wake Up” – Eliot. Based from the studio version, I was getting Tom Dice vibes, and remember back in 2010 he did very well with “Me and My Guitar“, placing sixth, so I was bullish that he will bring his country back in the finals after Sennek flopped last year. But impressions from the live party promotion circuit and from the rehearsals dimmed his prospects significantly–not that he has vocal issues like Sennek had, but most fans just don’t feel he’s making an impact as much as it potentially could have, and the employment of drummers for his stage presentation was deemed a misfire. There is still a window of possibility for this to advance as this is a quality pop number with world peace sentiments, but it’s far from assured.
GEORGIA: “Keep on Going” – Oto Nemsadze. Just like last year, Georgia decided to give this entry an English title even if it is entirely sung in Georgian. In its original Georgian it’s called “Sul tsin iare” which means almost exactly what the English title says. It’s a patriotic ballad about breaking barriers, and if you study history, it seems to be referencing the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and perhaps this song is about the hope that besides ending all conflicts that these two breakaway states would reunite back with Georgia again. For most listeners (including myself) it’s a harsh-sounding ballad–yes, you can admire Oto’s gruff, raspy, passionate vocals, but the melody just doesn’t stir most people’s hearts that for most fans this is last on the list. However, the music video and the staging helped create a better impression for this entry–most people don’t believe this would qualify but it will probably have a more respectable showing than what most people would expect. There is also a connection with the previous Eurovision entry as one of the vocalists from Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao is one of the backup singers for this number.
AUSTRALIA: “Zero Gravity” – Kate Miller-Heidke. I love this EDM-inflected pop-opera entry, and in fact I thought it is a more cohesive piece than a previous attempt to fuse dance music with pop and opera, Sweden’s Malena Erman‘s “La Voix” back in 2009–as much as I liked that entry too, I found the alto register of the pop verses and the soprano register in the chorus jarring and disjointed, in contrast to how Kate kept everything in the same soprano register all throughout that for me this entry sounded cohesive. I thought it was a well-deserved winner of its national final, even as there are at least four other worthy entries that could’ve been a worthy representative, so I was shocked when I read the negative non-Australian fan response to this entry initially. It made me fretful that this might become the first entry that would break Australia’s perfect finals qualification record. But then as Katie showed up in Amsterdam’s Eurovision in Concert she shut the critics down as she proved she can deliver her vocals live. She then released an acoustic version of the song that gotten rave notices–it sounded like a long-lost Kate Bush song to my ears, and that is a high compliment. But the clincher was the rehearsals where we see the big change she made from her Australian national final. In the Australian national final, she was standing on a pedestal as her gown enveloped it, creating the same effect as Moldova’s Aliona Moon‘s “O Mie” back in 2013 and Estonia’s Elina Nechayeva‘s “La Forza” last year. She one-upped those performances by actually being suspended on an apparently precarious mounted pole (alongside two “dementors” instead of one at the national final) and her singing and floating about simultaneous added a level of thrill and danger to the performance that it garnered scintillating buzz–now, not only is it a shoo-in for the finals, but can make a play for the Top 10 and beyond. I’m glad she’s gained vindication from that initial negative fan buzz–I’m so rooting for her to shine as the competition kicks in.
ICELAND: “Hatrið mun sigra [Hatred will prevail]” – Hatari. Imagine if Rammstein‘s frontman Til Lindemann and Depeche Mode‘s chief songwriter Martin Gore join forces with key instrumentalists from both bands (sorry, Dave Gahan) into a supergroup and chose to sing in Icelandic and you get this band/satirical performance art entity. The core of this act are two first cousins, Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson (the harsh vocalist) and Klemens Nikulásson Hannigan (the sweet-sounding vocalist). Matthias was a performance artist, poet, and journalist and Klemens was a poet/musician who have family backgrounds attuned to political/social/diplomatic affairs as Matthias’ father and Klemens’ mother are lawyers (and siblings at that, hence their blood relation), and Klemens’ father happens to also head the trade division of Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I have a feeling these two are distressed at the rise of populist politics throughout Europe along with the abuses the capitalist system has wrought that they decided to form this act as an outlet to vent out the consequences if these developments are taken to their logical extreme. They got the support of like-minded individuals to flesh out their project, like percussionist/producer Einar Hrafn Stefánsson (whose father happens to be the Icelandic ambassador to the UK) and their act is a vision to behold with a message that everyone should take heed. Part of their appeal is their homoerotic BDSM aesthetic, and their stage performances way outsteams makes the notorious 1997 Eurovision performance delivered by Paul Oscar*2 for his song “Minn hinsti dans [My final dance]” seem like a scene from Barney or Teletubbies. But despite presenting a “fascist” front, everyone seems to know where these guys actually stood for politically, and I totally subscribe to their views. This is why despite their harsh sound seemingly being divisive, there is way more love for this act and very few dislikes. As a result, they are actually a shoo-in for the finals.
*2 Paul Oscar tried to present himself as a lothario with his scantily clad leather-swimsuited female backup dancers, but his fey persona just doesn’t convince me one bit and the whole thing looked like an all-girl slumber party in the end.
Now, the question is…can they equal or exceed their best ever showings in this contest? You see, 20 years ago, they placed second with Selma‘s “All Out of Luck” and repeated that feat with Yohanna‘s “Is It True?” 10 years later. This entry falls within that decade cycle–can they sustain that cycle like the way Netta sustained Israel’s 20 year cycle last year by placing as a runner-up or better?
A final piquant note–outside of their leather garb, the cousins resemble celebrities. Matthias could pass for a younger version of The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, while Klemens looks like actor Jack Gleeson, who despite his cherubic appearance is best known for playing one of the most loathsome characters in Game of Thrones, King Joffrey (Baratheon) Lannister.
ESTONIA: “Storm” – Victor Crone. The song is like a rewrite of the late Avicii‘s biggest smash “Wake Me Up” (featuring Aloe Blacc) peppered with a few dashes of Loreen‘s immortal Eurovision hit “Euphoria“. In a segment laden with quirky numbers, this is one of the “conventional” ones. It’s one of my favorite entries this year, despite criticism about its rhyming gaffes (“Storm like this / could make a man like this”?). But buzz for this entry has been diminishing as of late that an upset might be in the offing where this might be yanked down by the likes of CZECH REPUBLIC or even SAN MARINO. Anyway, this entry also serves as a return for 2015 alumni Stig Rästa, as he co-wrote the song.
PORTUGAL: “Telemoveis [Mobile phones]” – Conan Osiris. I love the exotic, multicultural sounds of this entry and João Reis Moreira (and Conan)’s over-the-top interpretative dancing. It’s the pinnacle of cool, and one of my big personal favorites–I never tire of listening to this song and watching the national finals performance. But I’m surprised that this is receiving highly divisive buzz, with a significant amount of detractors. Plus, the rehearsals so far underwhelmed many fans that many aren’t sure this would advance. But I’m still keeping the faith and when the time comes, they will cast a spell and qualify.
GREECE: “Better Love” – Katerine Duska. Though I loved last year’s entry, it had the misfortune to be placed in the notorious “semifinal of death” and with staging that underwhelmed it was shut out of the finals. That outcome is not likely to happen this time as this female empowerment pop entry is simply too unstoppable. Katerine’s smoky, Amy Winehouse-ish vocals gave this song a very distinctive flavor. I was slightly concerned if Katerine would be wearing the voluminous pink froufrou number onstage from the music video, as for me it has the potential for it becoming a Barbara Dex awardee, but I’m glad she’s wearing a white lace dress instead (yes, the poufy lacy sleeves might not be for most tastes, but it works in a stage setting), and the staging is opulent with a Fabergé egg backdrop and fencing backup dancers. It’s one of the shoo-ins from the group.
I know Katerine’s voice could never be mistaken for the reigning Miss Universe Catriona Gray‘s, but when I first heard this song, somehow I had a vision of Catriona covering this song. I guess because I found Catriona’s lower register kinda approximates Katerine that is why I made the connection. Let’s see if Catriona can fulfill my fantasy.
SAN MARINO: “Say Na Na Na” – Serhat. When he entered the contest three years ago, Serhat wanted to present himself as a Leonard Cohen-type artist, but when fans initially heard the original version of “I Didn’t Know“, many were repulsed by it. Everyone presumed this will be a bottom-dweller in the contest, but then he released dance remixes of the song, and was shocked by the positive fan response that he appealed to the EBU if he can use one of the remix versions as the version he’ll perform onstage, and fortunately he got approval for that. It worked in his favor, as with a slick stage presentation, it actually finished a respectable 12th place in its semifinal heat. Confirming that disco is the way ago is the release of another remix of the same song a year later, featuring dance vocal legend Martha Wash*3 which actually made a splash in the US club charts. So in his second go-round, Serhat brought on the disco fun with this entertaining number, and as expected it received a warm response, and there was buzz It’s mindless fun, but sometimes we just need to check our brains at the door and this does the trick. There are fans who even think this could be San Marino’s second appearance in a Eurovision final, but then…
…unlike the sleek music video, the staging for this entry was deemed cheesy, with Serhat even carrying a megaphone and the words “Say Na Na Na” even popping out on the screen in the first rehearsal. It seems they took note of the buzz and tweaked it for the second rehearsals they ditched the megaphones and albeit it felt less slick than his previous foray, there is still a chance he can pull off an upset and advance to the final. He’s closing this round, you know.
Before I share who I think will qualify to the final on Saturday, May 18, I have to pay tribute to one entry that unfortunately had to sit out the contest due to politics…
UKRAINE: “Siren Song” – MARUV. This sensual, modern dance jam provoked the public with its overheated sensual presentation, with those writhing backup dancers in, uh, compromising positions. This would’ve guaranteed the heretofore uncatered heterosexual male contingent and the lager louts to take action and vote. Considering that it wasn’t even in the initial roster of shortlisted entries (it got in because a highly favored artist Tayanna decided to withdraw) the win this song achieved in the national final could be seen as a Cinderella story. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian broadcaster NTU had two big beefs against this entry: first was the aforementioned provocative sensuality; second was the fact that MARUV has commitments to perform in Russia, and you know how the Ukraine currently has an adversarial relationship with that country due to Crimea’s invasion five years ago. Even if MARUV declared her loyalty to her home country did not convince the broadcaster as it actually made an unprecedented announcement during the national final that there is no guarantee that the winner of the contest is guaranteed to compete for Ukraine, and handed MARUV an onerous contract that would force her to cancel all her impending Russian engagements or else incur a heinous fine, and to tone down her sexually charged presentation. MARUV, logically, wouldn’t agree to those conditions and her fellow competitors were in solidarity with her and refused the broadcaster’s offers to replace her. Hence the Ukrainian broadcaster opted to withdraw from this contest this year. Such a shame as this would’ve been a Top Five shoo-in, and yes, even a possible winner.,
Now, with the 17 semifinalists accounted for, here’s my take on who will advance:
Last year, the first semifinal was dubbed the “Semifinal of death” with the biggest heavy-hitters concentrated in that group. This year, the big favorites are concentrated in the second semifinal. Not that the entries in this group are weaklings as there are some treats to behold here, like…
CYPRUS: “Replay” – Tamta. Essentially this country decided to follow the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After its best-ever finish last year with Eleni Foureira‘s “Fuego“, it employed the same songwriter, and hired a Greek (though Georgian-born) superstar to perform the song. The title says it all–albeit the rhythms have a more urban feel, the implicit message that this is a “replay” of Eleni’s hit is very much apparent. Even if it is a “Fuego” derivative, the sleek production values and sheer infectiousness are just too undeniable that it could still make a play for the Top Five, possibly equaling or perhaps even surpassing its three previous best showings prior to “Fuego.”*1
For the contest, I’ve noticed that it also borrowed heavily from “Fuego” and other performances, but with a twist. From “Fuego”, she has a quartet of gyrating backup dancers, but the twist is that this time they are all male–and one of the dancers (Lamin Holmen) was part of Robin Bengtsson‘s treadmill posse two years ago. It also borrowed a trick from Latvia’s Marie N‘s 2002 winning performance (“I Wanna“) as there is a wardrobe change mid-song. Though fedoras could be associated with the aforementioned performance, the black fedoras in this presentation seems to be inspired by another entry–SWITZERLAND’s music video for “You Got Me”. Since SWITZERLAND is ditching the suits and fedora for their live presentation, they decided to take it for their act, it seems.
An extra note about Tamta: I first heard of her when she performed a cover of “Lie to Me” in a duet alongside the original artist, Mikolas Josef, at a Greek music awards show, as a medley with her own single, “Arches kalokairiou [Early summer[“. At that time, she was styled like early-era Lady Gaga. For her Eurovision stint she has trimmed her hair to a sleek bob and exuded a more sophisticated, cosmopolitan vibe. Check out that performance below.
MONTENEGRO: “Heaven” – D Mol. This group actually has a prior Eurovision connection, as the six members of this group are part of a performing arts academy established by Danijel Alibabić, former vocalist of Montenegrin boy band No Name, which previously represented the then-combined nation of Serbia & Montenegro in 2005 with “Zauvijek moja [Forever mine]“, which placed seventh in the final and almost competed again in 2006 with “Moja ljubavi [My love]” when it won the national final but politics got in the way as the Montenegrin jury did not award any points to the leading Serbian contenders, leading to accusations of bias by the Serbian broadcaster who happened to be conducting the contest that year and because of the controversy, they chose to withdraw from the 2006 contest. Montenegro seceded from Serbia that year, by the way. Anyway, the academy establised by Daniel is named D-Moll. When this group competed in the national final, there way this contrived musical staff backdrop but perhaps that, and residual love for No Name helped propel this group to victory in its national final, much to the chagrin of the internet fandom, which instantly placed them at the bottom of their lists. The song as it was performed in the national final was obviously a 1990s pop ballad retread. But they promised a revamp, and the addition of some traditional Balkan instruments indeed help jazz up tis number, but still not enough for many pundits (including myself) to upgrade its chances of advancing to the final. Based on buzz on its simple but directionless presentation, this is definitely one of the weakest links of this year’s contest.
FINLAND: “Look Away” – Darude featuring Sebastian Rejman. Darude is probably considered the biggest marquee name in most of Europe thanks to his 1999 international smash hit “Sandstorm“. Since Eurovision requires a song with vocals, he collaborated with singer/actor Sebastian Rejman, and the “socially relevant” number Sebastian co-wrote became the entry to represent Finland. I like the repetitive chorus and the message, but it seems it’s not making as strong an impact as it could have. It’s likely he’ll suffer the same fate as Swiss artist DJ Bobo, who 12 years ago was considered the biggest marquee name when he entered the contest with “Vampires are Alive” but flopped and missed advancing to the finals.
POLAND: “Fire of Love (Pali się)“ – Tulia. This group is renowned for fusing their traditional “white voice” folk sound with rock elements, starting out by covering Depeche Mode‘s 1990 hit “Enjoy the Silence“. Besides their musical style, what is also notiable about most of their live performances is that they tend to just stand still in a line without any movement whatsoever. But this very static style doesn’t really work in a very dynamic environment like the Eurovision stage, so these girls will jazz up their presentation with small body movements, and initially they seemed to borrow the turntable used by S!sters in the German national final as for their Eurovision performance they will be standing and spinning on that turntable, but by the second rehearsal they ditched it. It’s one of this year’s riskier entries, and one whose prospects of making the finals are not that assured at this point–there are big fans, but there are detractors too.
SLOVENIA: “Sebi” –Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl. There are a lot of fans who dig the chillout groove of this entry, and I like it too–though it reminds me a lot of Ciara‘s 2004 debut hit, “Goodies” (without the Petey Pablo rap parts or the noisy theremin overlay). Just like POLAND, their stage style is very static and Zala doesn’t even interact with the audience and just stays fixated facing her partner (in more ways than one) Gašper. It makes for a very introverted presentation, and could be considered one risky entry for that reason–it’s rare to see such an introverted performance onstage in this grand arena, and there are fans who love it to bits, but there might be others who would find it boring. Most fans’ prospects are bullish towards this entry, though, and okay, it’s time to make room for introverts in this contest.
CZECH REPUBLIC: “Friend of a Friend” – Lake Malawi. This is a very pleasant synth-pop entry, and lead singer Albert Černý‘s affected British accent has its appeal. But its prospects for advancing divided fans–some felt its very pleasantness is not as impactful as Mikolas Josef‘s breakthrough last year, but there are vocal supporters who simply adore this pleasantness and considering they have proven to be strong live performers, are very bullish that this will advance to the finals. My question though is–will Albert comb his hair up or keep it down. Yes, most of the time especially in the video and in rehearsals thus far, he keeps his hair down, and to me he resembles YouTube musical superstar Kurt Hugo Schneider but when he combs his hair up, he looks like Canadian pop musician Shawn Mendes, and I tend to prefer the latter.
HUNGARY: “Az én apám [My father]” – Joci Papai. He is an alumni, having competed two years ago with “Origo” and making Top 10. But this time he’s bringing a very mellow ballad and there will be no Gypsy/Romani dancer accompanying him. Sure, his vocals and emotional delivery can transcend language barriers but it’s not as impactful as his previous entry–there is a risk that he will break Hungary’s perfect finals streak that began in 2011 but still do not count the power of name recall and quality (albeit low-impact) music.
BELARUS: “I Like It” – ZENA. This teenage ingenue is an undeniably strong performer and I’m glad she ditched the white early-Britney get-up she sported in her national final for a printed knit shirt with white hot pants and knee-high boots–as iconic as the Britney look is, it’s very dated as it’s actually 20 years old. There was heavy criticism when one of the songwriters of this entry made a racist comment, but ZENA skillfully distanced herself from his stance, and by merits of the polished pop song and her charisma and live performing chops, even if it is not assure she might have a chance to advance to the finals.
SERBIA: “Kruna [Crown]” –Nevena Božović. She competed in both Junior Eurovision and in the main Eurovision stage previously, competing in the Junior stage 12 years ago with “Piši mi [Write to me]” and as part of girl group Moje 3 with “Ljubav je svuda [Love is everywhere]” six years later, a well-regarded pop number that was ruined by the garish outfits they were forced to wear that not only earned them the Barbara Dex award that year but also shut them out of the finals at a frustrating 11th place. So Nevena is hungry for vindication, and with this quality modern update of the classic Balkan ballad and her superb passionate vocals (for me she’s the Serbian Kelly Clarkson) she might achieve it. There are detractors who might feel the song itself is not that impactful and would shudder how the song’s theme of unconditional surrender (it’s about surrendering her “crown” for the object of her love) is opposite to the empowerment messages that most people now seem to prefer, but I’m still bullish that this will make the cut.